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News in brief

23 April 2015 à 18:52

"Back from China, still in a state of shock" by Hippolyte Girardot

Invited to the BJIFF, Hippolyte Girardot returns with a travel journal full of images and sensations: the films, the food, the Chinese people. His notes mix everything together, with passion, joy... and an undeniable panache.

Back from China, still in a state of shock

I arrive at dawn, an hour early (the wind was "favorable"), to a deserted airport. My name is nowhere to be seen on any greeting boards. I let time pass; I love this, being in the middle of a country I'm unfamiliar with, lacking bearings and directions. In fact, this never happens in our intensely channeled lives. An outlet for an international chain is open; I get a coffee there and wait. The first impression that will become anchored in my mind, because it keeps reappearing: the abrupt and almost ludicrous collage of modernity and the Middle Ages, of feudal times and globalization. 
I finally decide to call Isabelle Glachant – it's early, but too bad – to at least let her know that I've arrived. She answers the phone – so she's awake, I think, surprised – and says: "She's on her way, but you know her, it's Zing" (or Jing, or Ping?). I know a Chinese woman from China (as OSS 117, the super incompetent French spy would say)? Me?
I wait in this huge, empty arrivals hall. And then I see her coming. Jing. The last time I'd seen her, she was taking production stills of Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's To Life. She's still as lovely and charming, and still speaks excellent French. Intimidated, I compliment her on her "extraordinary" shoes.

We get in the van and head for the hotel. Little by little, tower apartment blocks give way to high-rise office buildings. Everything is a little grey. The night before, a rare but insane sandstorm had draped the cars with a thick layer of dust. A patina remains on the landscape, tower blocks and streets alike, old and new. It's like being in an autochrome by the Lumière brothers. Jingxiang explains a thousand things about the city to me, the outlying suburbs (8!), which recall the successive walls of the Forbidden City, and immediately starts talking about Shanghai – she's from Beijing – where the streets are narrower and the atmosphere is different (this rivalry is a little like that between Marseilles and Paris, this stuff's familiar, classico), and where everything is different. Already, I want to go to sleep, but I do my best not to.

French folk out for a wander

Big hotel, big room, big breakfast. Sleep or the Forbidden City? After all, it is the headquarters of the emperor, and it's not as if I pop over to China every week. Two students are assigned to accompany Tonie Marshall and me. Good tourists, the diabolical couple, French folk out for a wander, perfect, we'll fit the bill. We enter this vast representation of power, an imposing setting, emptied of all its court life, its bustle, which must have made the huge walls smaller and which today are like panels built for a science fiction film. Everything is covered with gloss paint, even the portrait of Mao at the entrance. Dozens of groups walk about like little animals all wearing the same caps, following small flags held aloft. We try to get away from the crowd, which Tonie tirelessly films...

And then. Then, the first meal in a restaurant chosen by Isabelle: 1984. I don't know the details because I'm going to cry. It's just a thing that happens sometimes. Eating something you've never eaten before and adoring this sensation of discovery, which, deep down, belongs only to childhood, is a rare experience when you've reached a mature age ("mature age," what a bitch of a euphemism). I ate lotus. How can I say this? I ATE LOTUS. There you go, just saying is all.

Then we go to talk with students at the drama school. It's very tough to get in (only 200 out of 100,000 applicants are admitted). Stéphane Berla, known as Jack, director of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has arrived, straight from the plane, his face very Shaolin and wearing his travel T-shirt, and zoom, immediately into a meeting with the students. He's capable of discussing the labial synchronization of the not quite precise "O" of his hero, Jack, with a student! The admiration of a clown like me who handles the most woolly-brained theories with dumb jokes, but assumes this role with panache (at least, as far as possible that is, see the end of this account). Tonie, true to herself, questions the place of women in the school, their relatively important number in the class, and spiritedly debates "feminine" (and not feminine) subjects. Here we are, it's the France of Cinema that's come to town, a mixture of originality and classicism, proselytism and timidity. Honesty compels me to say that I then dozed briefly during the interview in the courtyard. The lotus, no doubt.

We go in another car to the Cinematheque. It may seem like nothing, but the city is enormous and transport a worry. Calibrating the time spent getting between two places is a science, a question of intuition and luck. Once we get somewhere, we've overcome the most difficult part. The room is huge. We're now accompanied by the most extraordinary interpreter that I've ever met: Li Song. Impeccably dressed in a violet suit, he energizes our least remark. A true talent. I recommend you use him if you feel your marvelous intelligence won't win over the crowd; he'll do it for you. The three of us are once again on stage, each in our role, everything goes well, we begin to find our rhythm, our characters, we're probably going to turn into a trio and start singing some songs. And drinking some alcohol. And falling in love a bit. It's fabulous, but the day is beginning to feel long due to jetlag.

A pickpocket and a slap

But there's a thing that happens, that you can feel. It's how thrilled they are to see us, to see our films, to welcome us. We're so stunned, enchanted, and delighted by what we see and what we share that we don't immediately realize the STAKES this represents. But, in fact, being here, speaking freely about our films, passing on this idea of cinema is a message of hope for them. Being there is to be with them, hence encouraging them in a society that is too set in its ways from a political and cultural point of view. The films in the Panorama, a deft way of grafting films onto a prestigious Chinese event (the Beijing Film Festival), are selected by the censor. Nevertheless, these films are here, so different from what American studios offer. A New Wave retrospective lacks Pickpocket, removed from the lineup because it is "too realistic" from a technical point of view; the owner of the Broadway theater is asked to cut the slap the teacher gives to Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows. The owner decides to leave it in. And the screening takes place without the cops bursting in (totalitarianism has this in common with a sociopath parent: it is unpredictable). It's not a question of us being the architects of a cultural opening up (what right would we have?), but of being guides. Herein lies what is truly something unique in this Franco-Chinese relationship, totally different from those that we maintain with other countries. And it is truly sensitive. It is to be respected, as much as this gaze, which they bring to us, can but make us think about what we bring to them. Therein lies the exchange of observations which is worth far more than an exchange of opinions. I feel as though I judged the Chinese dragon too quickly. Being a slave of a western vision that suits us: a dominating China, police regime, factory producing unemployment in the West. When you're in this vast place, you begin to glimpse that we have more to learn from them than they from us. To become Chinese may be a goal...

It's already night when we leave the Cinematheque. At night, you only see the first stories, the ground floors, the street. In Asia, streets are not only a place you walk through, but a place where you live. Beijing inhabitants are Latin people. We dine in a huge place, a large circular table, with a rotating tray, and yet more new dishes. My eyes pop out of my head. I'm sitting next to Rosalie Varda (she knows Beijing like the back of her hand) and we're like two kids in front of all these little packets of tofu, wrapped like gifts. Blue noodles, slivers of marinated meat... I'll stop, it makes me too hungry just thinking about it. We leave the restaurant, groggy, a football match has just finished, hordes of spectators walk by in their football shirts, I take Tonie by the arm, ready, like a good football fan, to follow them to a crazy karaoke, and Isabelle, faced by the monstrous traffic jam immobilizing our drivers, suggests a foot massage. No comment; this situation goes way beyond what we could imagine after the kind of meal we've just experienced.

Incense, fire crackers and State properties

On Saturday morning, I wait for Tonie, who has to deal with what is called "The Bra Affair." I'll refrain from recounting the details, leaving that to the person the most concerned, should she wish to do so, but can confirm that we face a real challenge. We then leave for the Yonghe Temple. A magnificent series of temples separated by courtyards where a crowd of Buddhists crush, grabbing four sticks of incense, which they hold between their hands pressed together against their foreheads. They then bow three times before laying the smoking sticks at the foot of colorful and mocking statues of Buddhas sculpted out of single pieces of wood. It's very calming to do this, to be amongst people who pray, who, I imagine, make wishes of joy and leave with the satisfied feeling of having contributed to the world's harmony. The authorities wanted it to be believed that all this perfumed smoke was one of the causes, and not the least, of Beijing's pollution. Joke. Nevertheless, on New Year's Day, the vast number of fire crackers increases pollution by 100 percent in twenty minutes.

Just before leaving for the MOMA (which is not the museum in New York, but a kind of strange building complex, inside of which an independent theater, the Broadway, can be found, a kind of mini Asterix village), what's needed? To eat. To get to the restaurant, we walk through hutongs, traditional neighborhoods now disappearing. The street we take has two sides: one is still the way it originally was, so it's now rundown but still lively; the other is its mirror image, but renovated, which means it has the same dimensions and proportions, even the same design, but it's made of concrete. A kind of Disney version of a hutong. It's a shame, but inevitable. "Property," in the strict meaning of the word, doesn't exist in China. Or, rather, the State is the owner, and grants renewable, seventy-year concessions. Immanence. Very Chinese. Very Buddhist.

Eating, again

The restaurant is called Little Saigon and belongs to Steve, who, with his wife, produced The Nightingale. The terrace is great, and the food is half-Vietnamese, lighter than traditional Chinese food. We see pollution darken the sky. Tonie is already smartly dressed, due to her upcoming duties as the Vice-President of the artistic commission of Unifrance. We dash to a Q&A at the Broadway. The theater's manager moderates the discussion. We reply as best we can to the questions, and it is moments like these that are the spice of these trips. I say something silly about the fact that "being an actor is an excellent way to be a woman." Tonie talks about "this second half of the sky," about which Mao emphasized the importance (a knowing smile from the female spectators in the theater), and Stéphane explains that "Jack is entirely encrypted but very autobiographical," and that his "co-author even imagined in the screenplay things that then went on to actually happen."

Later, we attend a ceremony in which the French ambassador awards Feng Xiaogang, very moved behind his impassive mask, as French Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. Li Song translates vehemently, it's beautiful like antiquity and everything takes place in a traditional theater. There is a small courtyard in the back where we can smoke, and I find myself sharing a cigarette (see, it is worth having vices) with Feng and his friends, crouching down like samurai in front of the rain falling in front of us. The rooftop silhouettes stand out against the mountain backdrop; it's a very Chinese countryside in the middle of Beijing. Always this incredible mixture.

Before catching my plane, what's up? Eating, naturally. At Da Dong, famous for its Peking Duck. The chef is a mountain with very long hair. He's famous and when he poses for a photo with Robuchon, you'd say he's going to gobble him up like a little dumpling. The Peking Duck is very good, although the roast duck at 1949 was better. And we launch into a discussion about panache. What is panache? What does it relate to? Who has "panache", has had "panache"? Is "panache" French? Old-fashioned? Historical? We settle on Depardieu, likewise Belmondo, Jules Berry, Raimu... The discussion gets rowdy, it's like a version of "Casque et de l'Enclume" (a French radio program in which critics talk about the latest cultural events) live from Beijing.

I get back in the van in a deserted Beijing. The road is like lacquer that has just been polished. It takes ten minutes to get to the airport, then ten hours to get to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. And days to understand what I've been through.


Author : Communications

Latest update : 03 May 2015 à 18:52 CEST

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BJIFF - 2015

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